The theatre of the pandemic or the pandemic of the theatre
In 1922, the Parisian newspaper L’Intransigeant asked Marcel Proust: ‘How would people behave if they were told that a meteorite would crash on earth tomorrow? What would we do in our final hour?’ Proust replied: ‘ Life would suddenly seem wonderful to us’ and then he argues that by being aware of our early mortality we would make the trip we have always dreamed of, we would not delay any more desires and we would act against the passivity that the certainty of a future offers.
The ‘Proust Meteorite’, which he seemed to be looking forward to, has reached our world in the form of a pandemic. If we have the privilege of analyzing our situation without worrying about our well-being, we have revalued our stay in this world, we have begun to enjoy the quotidian aspects of our lives, connected with forgotten people we love, we’ve reconsider the validity of toxic relationships, we look at the sky with desire, we reinvented our common spaces, we’ve reinvented the passage of time, routine is our ritual, and as art workers, we have adapted.
The blow of this pandemic in the performing arts sector is catastrophic, in addition to the economic blow, it is not permitted to join together. The center of our work: coexistence, community and encounter, have been transformed into uncertain desires, imposed fears, and unwanted moments. Due to these restrictions the theaters are temporarily closed, the desolate streets; and the gathering of people, who bring life to theater, are a risk.
The theatre (I include the performing arts with their common origin in Bacchic dances) has survived countless pandemics and will continue to exist as long as human beings exist. To speak about theater is to speak about life itself. Its eternal search concerns all of us, as it explores our origins, educates us emotionally, values our existence, and this is only possible through the theatrical event: the physical encounter between two or more human beings. An actor and a spectator, one who creates that parallel universe of latent reality and another who actively awaits. A meeting in the present body.
If we talk about human needs we need to eat, drink and sleep; but the artist has chosen another basic necessity in his subsistence: to make art. This artistic experience is not transmitted through a screen. The emotional transmission of the actor’s present body cannot be recreated by technological means. I remember a discussion I had with a friend of mine a couple of years ago, he was recording the play in which I performed, basically we were discussing the difference between cinema and theater. In a scene from that play I smoked a cigarette, my friend said that that was the only thing that envied from theater, the smell of that lit cigarette, he commented that he couldn’t create the smell of the cigarette burning through the camera, he could recreate an idea through sound and image, but couldn’t affect the smell of the viewer. It seemed like an interesting idea, the moment alive. Being the theater an experience in the present body, the spectator’s observation is three-dimensional, it decides where to focus its gaze, the visual and emotional perception is different from that proposed by the cinema, it is an event that happens in real time, and understanding that factor is important. Faced with the current adversities, the necessity of gathering has grown stronger, since it has been limited, therefore an adaptation has emerged in our artistic need. The theater has become friendly with technology to keep this active energy alive. The tech theater or online theater has emerged as a need for connection against the disconnection of the pandemic.
In times before the pandemic going to the theater was a ritual, we planned in advance the disruption of our routine, we prepared ourselves. Today you can ‘see’ countless plays at any time from the comfort of your bed, but unfortunately you cannot ‘experience’ it. The online theater that is enjoyed from home differs from the central idea that the theater proposes: ‘the encounter of two wounded, lonely, rebellious individuals. The embrace of an active energy and a receptive energy.’ (‘Carta a Gregorio’ Eugenio Barba, 2020) I don’t think online theater is bad, it seems appropriate for our times, but it seems reasonable to point out its difference with the seminal idea of theater, so we do not forget the roots of the encounter.
The artists are crumbs in time that contribute in the fertile compost of the theater of our time. Perhaps it will not be the last pandemic that we will have to survive (they will come in different forms), perhaps the ambiguity of these times reaffirms the tenacity that characterizes us so much, clarifies the continuous sacrifice of our social / family life for the theater, since we value immensely the social importance of our disruptive practice. Although this plague has generated an uncertain climate, of something I am sure, that when we get out of this pandemic we will face crowded theatres with spectators needing the human encounter, the living encounter, the theater.
photos by Oscar Socias